what should I look for when interviewing college students?

A reader writes:

With this blog and your book for reference, I now feel much more confident interviewing candidates. (Thank you!) While I’ve had plenty of practice interviewing experienced hires, I’m feeling stumped preparing to interview college students. We are coming up on fall campus recruiting for interns and new hires, and I’m having trouble formulating my general interview script. Most of my go-to questions focus on past projects and experiences in different work environments. How do I translate this to students, especially the internship candidates who may not have any prior industry experience? What do I look for – GPA? Class projects? Leadership activities?

Yeah, it’s tricky because they don’t have much track record.

I’d look for three main things: smarts, drive, and some sort of track record of achievement. That last one is the most important. You’re looking for some sort of evidence that they’ve been able to get things done — build something, run something, grow something, improve something, earn something, or otherwise achieve something.

(That said, if you find someone who has smarts and drive and a great attitude but hasn’t really achieved anything yet, it’s not crazy to take a chance on them; it’s more reasonable at this age that they can’t point to much they’ve done yet than it will be down the road.)

Other things to pay attention to: Did they prepare? Did they research your company? Have they put some effort into the overall presentation of themselves and their materials? Do they seem to be taking the process seriously? How’s their writing? How are their communication skills generally? Are they thoughtful? Passionate about anything? Excited by the prospect of working for you (without deluding themselves about what it might be like)?

As for what to ask, probe into whatever they have done. Ask about classwork, leadership roles, campus activities, any interesting hobbies, the last paper they wrote, whatever’s on their resume. The idea is to get them talking about something that they can speak knowledgeably about, because it’ll give you a look at how their brain works — how they think and operate, how they synthesize information, how they communicate, what they think is important.

It’s also reasonable to ask this group more “soft” questions that you would with a candidate who had real experience to probe into. Ask what interests them about the work they’re applying for, what fields they’ve considered and rejected and why, why they picked their major, what they liked most about their finance classes — all the soft questions that would make for a really weak interview if that’s all you asked, but which are more appropriate when you’re interviewing candidates without much professional background.

What other advice do people have?

{ 108 comments… read them below }

  1. holly

    would letters of recommendation from professors be appropriate to ask for in lieu of references? since sometimes grades are not really reflective of someone’s work ethic or abilities. it would be interesting to hear specifics from teachers that could remember them.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I’m not a big fan of letters of recommendation — any time that the candidate sees what you’re saying about them, the value of the reference goes way down. Plus, you want to be able to have a back and forth with the reference and hear their tone of voice. You might accept professors as references, but I’d still not do it in letter form.

      1. Elizabeth the Ginger

        At my college, the process was that profs would send letters of recommendation to the Alumni Career Office, not give them directly to the students they were recommending. Then we could request at any time for the Career Office to send those recommendations to employers. I never got to see what my professors wrote about me.

        That doesn’t address the benefits of having a back-and-forth, but it does mean that the professors could feel free to be more honest than they might have if they’d been giving the letters to us.

      2. JJ

        Similar to Elizabeth’s insight, any time I’ve written a letter for a student applying for a job I have either (a) given them the letter in an envelope with official personalized letterhead, with the institution stamp on the seal and a clear indication that the reference should be disregarded if the seal has been tampered with, or (b) if the employer wants the reference via email, I send it to them directly.

        Before getting this far along in the process, though, I do briefly speak with the student about my assessment of them. We don’t have this meeting so that I can tell them exactly what I’m writing or so they can tell me what to write; it’s simply intended to help the student understand my general evaluation so that there are no surprises and to give them a final opportunity to ask someone else for a reference if they realize this arrangement isn’t a good fit or won’t be as beneficial to them as they had originally hoped.

        1. JJ

          Oh, and to be perfectly clear: Even if I give the student a physical letter, I usually do follow-up with the employer so that they are aware of my broken seal rule.

          1. ggg

            I take letters from professors. 99% of the time, they e-mail them directly to me, bypassing the student.

      3. Cassie

        It’s not uncommon for the recommendee to draft the letter him-/herself… if the professor asks them to do it (“to save time”). Or have a secretary send out perfunctory recommendation letters that basically just state what course the student took, his/her grade*, and that he/she was hard-working, enthusiastic, and willing to help his/her peers. (*possibly a FERPA violation by including grades?).

        Not that I know from personal experience…

        Reflecting back to my own college application packet – I got four letters of recommendations from ballet teachers (it’s really kind of silly for a performing arts field, if you think about it) and 3 of the 4 recommenders gave me their letters without sealing. 1 mailed hers in directly to the school. Nowadays, much of the rec letters are uploaded online or emailed to the admissions office. It’s rare to give a sealed envelope to a student.

    2. Tea

      I’d lean toward “No”, if only because lots of other students (seniors, especially) are asking for letters of recommendation from professors as a part of applying to grad schools, many professors have only a limited number of letters they’re willing to write, and professors often have a set time when students are allowed to “request” letters, and the professor will get it back to them on their own schedule. My understanding is that most students who don’t plan applying to grad school don’t request letters, because not a lot of employers care what your college professor has to say about your ability to write essays when they’re hiring you for the job.

      If you have a student who isn’t planning on going into graduate school, or isn’t at a high enough grade to start planning ahead for it (say freshmen or sophomore), or you’re asking at the wrong time of the year, or you’re waiting on the professors to take their sweet time getting the letter over… all of that would just result in disqualifying otherwise perfectly functional candidates for factors out of their control.

    3. Chriama

      I would only find that valuable if you knew the professor personally or s/he was renowned in their field for the kind of work you’re hiring for OR it was a very hands-on class project that the professor directly supervised. Honestly, lots of kids make friends with professors without really being great workers (I may or may not be speaking from experience ).

    4. JJ

      I’ve provided letters of recommendation for students seeking jobs before. I think they can be a great option as long as the student has people in mind who understand how to frame their evaluations to focus on their potential and their transferable skills.

      For example, if a student was enrolled in a class where they had to contribute to a group project and they performed well, I would *definitely* agree to help them. Most students hate group projects and the default reaction almost always tends to consist of complaining, placing blame on others for shared responsibilities, etc. For that reason, I view group projects as a great opportunity to gain insight into what these students would actually be like as *employees*. It’s something I definitely consciously consider when writing letters of recommendation. Apart from that, everything else that you have to go on includes things like basic work ethic (attendance, turning assignments in on time), work engagement (asking questions in class, seeking additional information during office hours) and, of course, performance.

      However, I think the downside of asking a student for a LOR from a professor is that some professors (or whole departments) may be better than others in terms of thinking about how to frame their observations. An otherwise great student might still end up with a letter that focuses on grades or damns them with faint praise because teaching isn’t as valued at the institution as research is, so the profs might not even know many of the students’ names.

      1. super anon

        As a student (and someone who is an employee who’s done a lot of group work), I have to disagree with your view of group projects for students.

        As a student, group projects are an absolute nightmare, and quite honestly, rarely indicative of how you would work in a group in the workplace. Generally, it’s usually nearly impossible to get the group together to meet outside of class, especially if it’s a large group of more than 3. People have other classes and jobs, so often schedules collide and even weekends can be out for meeting. Because there is no pay inventive and they can’t get fired from class, the majority of people tend to underperform and it’s stressful for those of us (like me) who want to do well but are held back by the underperformers.

        I think my reaction to group projects in a classroom is not reflective of my actual work on group projects in the workplace. I do well at both, but workplace group projects have been infinitely less stressful than the ones I’ve been forced to do in university.

        1. the gold digger

          I found group projects to be just like work: you don’t get to choose who you work with, some people care more about the outcome than others, you can’t fire the slackers, and if you care and they don’t, you end up picking up the slack.

        2. Anx

          The key distinction between group work as a student and as a worker for me is that work has always been a higher priority to me than school, as were extracurriculars, because my performance typically affected other people. Suddenly other people are depending on my classwork performance when my group projects for work or an organization already take precedent in terms of which I would do first and how I scheduled my day. Also, several times group members have wanted me to meet them off campus when I didn’t have a car, and I would wind up drawing their ire or walking in unfamiliar areas in an area not fully serviced by public transit.

        3. JJ

          Oh believe me, as a former student, former worker in multiple organizations and current prof, the fact that school-based group work and work-based group work are not identical is not lost on me. I do not claim they are the same, but I still retain my perspective that school-based group work can, indeed, provide you with helpful insight on the kind of employees students might become. As I stated previously, I almost expect students to hate group work. Not every student does, but if given the choice between completing an individual project vs. a group project, well….the choice is clear for most students (and people in general, for that matter).

          However, to clarify my statement on how I relate group project performance to my LORs: I don’t penalize students in my LORs if they complain once or struggle a bit with group projects (though if something major happened, like claiming someone else’s work as their own or they failed to contribute at all, I would have to really think about whether I could write them a positive letter or if it’s better for them to ask someone else). However, if a student really shines in this domain (not just in terms of their final grade but in the potential they demonstrate through actively participating in the project rather than waiting around to blame someone else in the end), then I am going to highlight their achievement in that domain. Precisely BECAUSE students perceive that the stakes are so low and the inconvenience so high with group projects. I’d want to hire the person who is able to shine regardless of whether they’re in a great team with talent, resources and external motivators or if they’re swimming in a sea of bullshit.

    5. snuck

      I have found letters to be a poor indicator – people will often write something that is either generic, or not the full story – no one wants to put in writing the negatives. And if they are in writing why would the person hand it over to you (the negatives that is). In my opinion you’d do better ringing and talking to a professor who has been directly involved with the student for more than one term, and preferably in a smaller class size with more visibility of the individual.

      I’d ask for three references (wait until you have your short list, and make it clear this is your short list so it’s worth the effort) – one academic, one personal (but not family) and one from a community organisation or job. You might get a more rounded view, and you can (hopefully?) ask questions of these references like “would you employ this person in your own business in a similar role?” and “what are three things you’d recommend about how best to work with this person?” (looking for things like “give lots of direction” or “let her have her head – she really puts in the long yards when it’s her own thing” etc to help form your opinions) and ask the reference about *their* relationship with the person – how many hours have they spent supervising the person (does it match the resume?) and how would they describe the person’s personality etc. If the references aren’t contactable (on leave, never answer phones etc) then ask the student to follow up for you, as you might any adult/normal reference check issue.

      If the person can’t give you three quality references that can talk to that then you might give them one more chance at coming up with one (because they are inexperienced, and this is assuming they are still your top two or three) but after that I’d cut them loose and look at your other top few. If they ask for feedback on why they don’t get the role you can say “because we couldn’t get a good handle on who you were and how you’d fit in our business, I would recommend finding and working with some good references to help future employers get an understanding of who you are, maybe volunteer or intern in a few areas and use that to help build your experience” and walk away.

    6. College Career Counselor

      Most (but not all) of the time, the professor has knowledge of the student in her class from participation, from writing assignments, tests, etc. Unless the professor makes a good attempt to relate how the student’s performanced in the class is transferrable to the specific job environment, a letter is seen (by most employers I’ve spoken with) as mostly irrelevant. Plus, most professorial letters of recommendation skew toward the super-academic in their language, which may or may not work for the hiring manager.

      Now, if the professor was also your supervisor in a lab, on a particular project, for a campus job, etc., that’s a different story. Also, I have found that most students who ask professors to write letters of recommendation or to be references don’t give enough information to the prof for her to tailor it effectively.

    7. Melissa

      I don’t think they’d be particularly useful. Most professors haven’t actually seen college students do any tasks that would relate to internship work, and sometimes students who are very book-smart and great in class have no idea what to do in the workplace (and vice versa).

  2. Dan

    The field makes a big difference. I work in STEM, and would have no trouble filling an hour asking technical questions, even if they never had a job in their life.

    1. Adam

      Yep, and the candidates would either know the answers or they wouldn’t. I knew enough people in college who were engineering or computer science majors to know there’s not a lot of room to BS your way through it.

    2. OP

      OP here! This is fascinating, because we are hiring engineers. When I suggested to the other campus recruiters that we should develop a script with some technical questions, I had a revolt. Lots of push back that we need to be more concerned with their soft skills and that the smartest people are not the ones you want to work with (!) I was flabbergasted. As an engineer myself, I can’t fathom a good candidate being unable to answer simple technical questions.

      1. Colette

        I think it’s completely true that the smartest people are not necessary the people you want to work with, but that doesn’t mean you ignore technical skills. You want a candidate with both.

        I think a track record is especially important in highly technical fields, because non-technical people can be easily confused by technical people who use words they don’t understand – a project could get far off track before a project manager realized what was going on.

        1. Dingo

          However, you’re assuming that humans make good judgment of other people’s “interpersonal” skills and kindness.

      2. Vera

        In lieu of technical questions, why not ask them which class fascinated them most, and why? Something I have asked in the past is for candidates to teach me a very basic engineering concept (like friction or forces or something like that), in order to better grasp how they learn. Most engineers understand or teach themselves concepts in different ways and I’ve found this is a good way to get into their brain.

        You could also ask which class they disliked the most and why. Sometimes it’s the material, that will help you understand their technical interests. Sometimes it’s the professor, that will help you understand what type of person they might work best with. Sometimes it’s because of how the professor structured the class (exams only, or tons of weekly homework), which will help you understand how they work.

        I will also ask engineers a lot of questions about their last group project. Were they in charge of getting the device/code/whatever to work? Were they the lead? Were they just executing?

        I’m not a fan of actual technical questions because I am a strong believer that a degree in engineering only indicates that you are able to learn, comprehend, and apply engineering concepts– not memorize engineering concepts.

        1. stb5114

          I totally agree- you also have to remember that engineers work from textbooks ALL THE TIME and don’t actually have all the facts and formulas in their head. Aside from some basic conceptual questions like the ones you mention, expecting a candidate to answer a technical problem on the spot is usually pretty silly, especially since half the time the interviewer can’t answer it themselves without cracking open their old college notes.

      3. Chriama

        I think it’s both. Lots of kids may know all the technical answers and just be terrible to work with (not interested in ‘paying their dues’ and taking directions from a manager, not able to be self-directed, used to cutting corners or relying on other group members to check their work, etc). You definitely don’t want someone who slacked their way through a degree and barely passed, but among those who meet the minimum technical knowledge requirements there will definitely be some kids who are better than others, and that usually comes down to soft skills. Extracurricular involvement will probably be important, but I would go for kids who show commitment (e.g. volunteered with an organization for several years) v.s. those who show “leadership” (e.g. started a “business” or student club that’s has no real or measurable achievements).

      4. DeAnna

        We hire mechanical and electrical engineers right out of college, and we have them take a written exam that covers the basics. Then the interviewer goes over the exam with them before asking them the “soft skill” questions.

      5. Ashley

        I help graduate and undergraduate civil and environmental engineers navigate their job search process, and I always tell them to prepare for both technical and behavioral questions. I find it baffling that you received push back from your colleagues regarding the inclusion of technical questions. I mean, it makes sense that you don’t want to hire someone with poor soft skills because you only asked them technical questions, but you also don’t want to hire someone who can’t do the science you’re asking them to perform on a daily basis. How do your peers address that concern? I’m just sort of shaking my head at my desk here….

      6. monologue

        I don’t think technical skills questions will get you “the smartest people” anyway. Personally I would shy away from using gpa as an indicator and towards asking technical questions to look for people that know the stuff you’d like them to know for the position. In my experience hiring summer students for lab positions, GPA is a really bad indicator of work ethic and practical skills like problem solving, troubleshooting, organization and general common sense. Also asking about career goals may or may not be useful dependjng on the position you’re hiring for. In my lab we’ve had issues with premeds that just need summer positions for their med school application but have no actual interest or aptitude in our area. Now I generally don’t hire premeds unless they have a bunch of courses specifically in our research area.

      7. Mike C.

        As a STEM person myself, I fully agree with your coworkers. Sure, there needs to be a minimum amount of technical expertise, but there are plenty of cases I can think of where hiring someone with a little broader knowledge base or the ability to write and communicate clearly is much more important than a few points on the GPA scale.

        1. ggg

          Agreed!

          All our prospective interns (STEM field) have pretty good grades and pretty good recommendations from pretty good schools. The ones I hire are the ones who ask the best questions about the project.

      8. EAnonymous

        I’ve found that purely factual technical questions are not that helpful – everyone can look up a formula if they need it, and nervous college students sometimes completely blank during interviews. If the job doesn’t require them to be able to do public math without seeing the problem in advance, I tend to ask questions about what type of solution they would use for a given problem (like pick UDP or TCP if they are a software developer or use aluminum or composite if they’re mechanicals).

        One of my favorite questions to ask (assuming you want engineers actually building things) is “What is the most expensive thing you have broken or taken apart and been unable to put back together? What did you do about it?” The better candidates will often have a story about a computer or a car or lab equipment and will talk about what they learned in the process. You also learn something about what they do when they’ve messed up or hit a wall, how persistent they are, and how they solve hard problems that aren’t from a textbook.

        1. Anx

          One of my biggest sources of anxiety after graduation was being too nervous to assert my skills or knowledge areas because I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to back it up if an interviewer began to examine me. I guess imposter syndrome is a powerful thing.

          I would however appreciate the opportunity to ensure that I really do have a good enough grasp on the material to do the job effectively.

      9. snuck

        I think there’s some value in this – not just looking at technical skills.

        At this stage in their career they have a long way to go to develop technical skills, but people/soft skills are already solidifying and harder to develop.

        I would rather take a person who is a good team player (actually does their fair share of work on a team project and participates in group tutes effectively) than a person who knows the correct answers or how to do a correlational comparison in Excel (yes, I have been asked to demonstrate that in a ‘job test’… they were surprised I knew I how, I was surprised they asked and I was annoyed about it). If you get the person who is an absolute whizz at something AND has people skills that’s awesome – but if you aren’t going to use those technical skills (look at what you are actually asking of these entry level graduates… what work are you actually going to give them, soon) then why hire them for that? You risk alienating them and having a revolving door issue. Now if they are quickly going to channel into a technical role then sure, but make sure that’s really where they are going, soon.

      10. Melissa

        As someone who supervised a lot of STEM students who were looking for off-campus work – they’re expecting technical questions, and are preparing for that. My STEM juniors who interviewed for summer internships at engineering firms told me that they had to answer both technical and “soft” questions in their interviews.

    3. the_scientist

      I’m also in STEM and participate in the hiring of volunteers and work-study students. And, I was a co-op student during my undergrad, which meant interviewing for technical positions without a real track record (other than course-based lab work).

      You can spend a lot of time with candidates on technical questions, but the reality is that, at least in molecular bio, while all labs use basic techniques everyone has their quirks re: HOW THINGS SHOULD BE, and every lab uses slightly different protocols. If someone has a grasp on the basics (aseptic technique, working in a biosafety cabinet/fume hood, pipetting and measuring correctly), a good understanding of why those basics are important, and a willingness and ability to learn new techniques, they might be a good candidate. So much of science is learned by hands-on practice anyway that no matter how much theoretical knowledge you have there is a ton of applied stuff to learn, and my experience was that my lab coursework rarely reflected real life in a lab. Having said that, I’ve seen volunteers/students without any lab experience at all, and even the sharpest ones face a steep learning curve in the lab.

      We do ask candidates what they know about Dr. BigShot’s research program, and why they are particularly interested in working in this lab, and perhaps how their coursework applies to the research. But we also ask behavioural questions that allow candidates to bring volunteer or employment experience outside the field to bear in an interview- i.e. time management, prioritizing, teamwork, problem solving, communication etc. Basically, looking for the soft skills in addition to their technical knowledge.

      1. Mike C.

        I really agree with the comments about lab work. You aren’t hiring someone to do really cutting edge research all on their own, you’re hiring someone to perform rather basic work. Heck, the grade difference between my lecture and lab classes was around 1.0 in favor of the labs.

    4. ME

      STEM here and former volunteer recruitier for a rotational program I was in. We looked for both technical skills and soft skills in college seniors. Both were weighed equally as the people in the program would have high exposure to higher ups and were expected to be high performers. Some track record of success was also looked for such as on campus leadership experience, internship experience, etc.
      Our technical skills questions were very basic (concepts taught in intro classes).
      What I like about this approach is that you will attract strong talent and high potential people that are likely to stick around more than a couple of years out of college.

  3. fposte

    I interview a lot of people just finishing college. In addition to what Alison says, I do a lot of “tell us about a time” behavioral questions that are broadly constructed so that they could apply to class, camp, babysitting, part-time work, what have you, and I also do some real scenarios that have happened in our positions for a “If this happens, what do you do? What do you think is important to consider?” I don’t care so much that they know exactly what to do; I want to see how they consider the problem and approach its solution. I do a lot of “can you tell me more about that?” on questions, since they often don’t know how much to start with.

    Seemingly irrelevant job experience is often relevant. I particularly find that solid retail or food service experience speaks well to somebody’s ability to keep cool and get stuff done.

    1. Janet

      I agree with this – I ask a lot of questions about related class work and then “Tell me about a project you recently finished that you are incredibly proud of.” or “Tell me about a group project you worked on where there might have been some issues – and tell me how you got through them.”

      I’ll also ask “What has your favorite class been so far? Why?” and I tend to get a lot of insight into their personality with those questions.

    2. A Kate

      I agree that asking how candidates would handle real scenarios that have cropped up in the position is helpful. In interviewing recent grads, I’ve asked things like, “If you needed x piece of information, how would you go about finding it?” or “If a client had y complaint, what would you do to solve the problem.”

      Answers to these questions can tell you if the student/grad knows how the industry works. They might not come up with a response that matches how your organization handles these situations (nor should they have to), but you’ll still be able to weed people out if they come up with something totally crazy.

      These are also useful questions to tell how independently an candidate might work. If they say they’d ask their supervisor on every little thing, that might be a red flag. It would be equally concerning if they don’t include bringing their supervisor into the loop when talking about how they would deal with a huge crisis (depending on the role, of course).

    3. One of the Annes

      Very much agree with the “I particularly find that solid retail or food service experience speaks well . . .” sentence. I had and have a good work ethic and “drive.” I had very little by way of extracurriculars or campus leadership experience back when I was a new college grad, but I’ve worked since I was 15. So my personal bias leans toward weighting teen and college-years job experience (whatever the jobs) more heavily than extracurricular activities. Of course, having both would make a young candidate awesome. I’m just kind of shocked when I find that a 22-year-old has absolutely no work experience beyond a college internship. Rightly or wrongly, it makes me think “This person will feel entitled.”

      1. snuck

        Agree! McDonalds employees (here in Australia at least, who have a few years under their belt) are well and truly used to hard work, being on time, understanding professional boundaries, able to resolve conflicts/issues well etc. Not all of them, but a lot, especially those who wind up in leadership roles.

      2. Melissa

        I worked at a college at which that was actually quite common. It was an elite university where the majority of the student body was upper-middle-class, and never had to work through high school. Any prior work experience they had was, in most cases, college internships OR fancy high school internships that were arranged by their parents’ friend’s cousin or whatnot, who was involved in X (X being whatever field the student was interested in). Yes, a lot of the students were entitled. BUT I also found that a lot of the students were not entitled; they were well aware of the privileges they had been afforded in life and were able to discuss them cogently, and think about what that meant for their social worlds. For some of them, it also didn’t affect their work ethic much. Some of my hardest-working students were incredibly wealthy, and one of my all-around favorite RAs went to a really fancy $40K-a-year day school for HS.

        I also expected some of the wealthy fraternity boys I worked with to be little…ahem. But most of them were friendly, respectful, personable people. And they did a LOT of charity work.

      3. jag

        “Rightly or wrongly, it makes me think ‘This person will feel entitled.'”

        It’s probably right to think that that person is more LIKELY to feel entitled than other people. It’s certainly wrong to think that they DEFINITELY will feel entitled – you just don’t have that information.

        I think in decision-making in general it’s important to be aware of one’s own biases. You’re there or getting there, which is good.

    4. Melissa

      I was coming to suggest this. I was in a position in which I had to interview/hire college students, and we used a lot of these behavioral questions. Students primarily used experiences from previous classes, part-time jobs in high school and earlier in college, and high school extracurriculars. The key was listening to see whether they could select an appropriate anecdote to talk about that actually aligned with what we were asking them, and also to listen to their basic approach to solving the particular problem that behavioral question was designed to get at. I was hiring resident assistants, so for example we would ask them about a time in which they had to mediate a conflict between two people (whether they were involved or not). We also asked them about a time in which they had to react quickly in an emergency.

      And in this case I agree that the “smartest” students aren’t always the best ones to pick. I never paid much attention to GPA – by the time the applications got to me we had already weeded out the ones who were below our required threshold, which was a 3.0, and for me beyond that their GPA was not relevant. I wanted personable, involved, social students who would be able to keep their residents calm in an emergency and be able to relate to them when they were having problems. Our campus had a very distinct culture, and the student who had a perfect 4.0 usually had one because they spent all their time studying and doing nothing else.

    5. books

      You can teach a lot of skills, concepts and work activities. You can’t teach problem solving or work ethic. When I was interviewing entry level candidates, I asked about their interest and their background, then I asked about how they would solve a problem and laid out some of the work to see how they reacted.

      1. jag

        It’s certainly possible to teach problem solving. Good courses in college and grad school in a wide range of fields (social sciences, STEM, and technical subjects) do that. We do that with interns where I work all the time. And even with other staff.

        Management consulting companies whole business is built around problem solving and the big ones explicitly train new hires on how to do it.

    6. claire

      I used to teach a career management class for undergrads. We spent time talking about, and practicing answers to behaviorial questions. Most of the students used examples from school or part time jobs. Once, a student gave an answer involving an illegal activity. It actually worked pretty well as a demonstration of their skills – except for showing poor judgement in using an illegal example. It did give us a lot to talk about in class. (And the next time I used that assignment, I explicitly said to only use legal examples.)

      1. fposte

        Wow, this sounds like a great course (as long as it’s taught by people who actually know what they’re doing, like you), and the real-life stuff is brilliant. I wish more schools did this.

  4. WorkingMom

    In my immediate post-college interviews, I remember discussing things I learned from different leadership roles I took on in school. For example, I held a position in my sorority house. Now- I wouldn’t be bringing up my sorority house a few years later, but with very little real job experience, my roles in the sorority, or through fundraising with a charity, group projects from classes was where I drew experience from to answer those interview questions.

    As the interviewer, when you’re speaking with immediate college grads, keep in mind that greek life, clubs and sports is the bulk of their experience! Not saying that one would, but don’t discredit their experience because it was from a fraternity fundraiser – it’s still life experience, just in a different package!

    1. fposte

      “greek life, clubs and sports is the bulk of their experience!”–that’s kind of funny to me because it’s not true for our applicants, and it’s interesting to see how different norms can be! But I totally agree with you on assessing them based on the experiences they actually have rather than expecting them to have mini-CVs.

      1. Melissa

        Yeah, you have to know your college study body, too – or, if you are in a market with lots of colleges, how student bodies might differ. For the students at my elite university – who largely did not have to work to make ends meet in college – the majority of their experiences would be Greek life, clubs, sports. For the juniors and seniors, they may have had a summer internship and/or an off-campus term-time internship (we were located in a very large city). But for the most part, if they were working off-campus, it was because they wanted to and because the job was in their intended field – not because they needed the money. But for several other colleges and universities in our city, that wouldn’t be the case.

        One would have to be careful about how to compare the students from the elite university and the public college across the street – the actual things they are doing will be very different (the public college kid might be writing for their school newspaper; the elite college kid might have an internship with the New York Times) – but the quality of their experiences might actually be very similar. Furthermore, that public college kid might have just as much or more drive/ambition; they might have had to claw their way to even get to where they were. BUT I also wouldn’t write off the elite kids; having worked with them for a couple of years, I realized that they were actually a pretty ambitious bunch themselves, and were by and large willing to work.

  5. Anonymous

    I once interviewed a recent graduate for an entry level professional position. We covered the topics suggested, and moved into coursework. She was doing well so I asked if she had ever skipped a class. She said no, that she was very focused on course work, paid her own way through school, got straight A’sand finished in three years. Her record was consistent with this and we hired her. Fast forward a year, she was doing very well and I brought up the subject again and got the truth. She often skipped class. I told her no problem, it was helpful for me to know what she looked like while lying.

    1. Sadsack

      Interesting…if she had admitted during the interview to skipping classes, do you think you would have hired her? I ask because it seems that, even though she skipped classes, her work ethic has been strong and she was a good hire anyway. What do you think the question about skipping classes told you about her (not counting the lying aspect, unless that was the real reason you asked)?

      1. jag

        “She was doing well so I asked if she had ever skipped a class. ”

        “F#ck yeah! Most classes are booooring. Duh. So when do I start?”

    2. Livin' in a Box (formerly CanadianWriter)

      Why would you ask that question? I skipped tons of college classes but I always show up to work. It’s not the same thing at all.

      1. April

        Agreed. When you are a student, you are the client and the college is the provider of the good or service. You aren’t being paid to attend class, you are paying the college to provide the class. Big difference.

        There’s all sorts of reasons to skip class, some responsible, some irresponsible. Some classes, attendance is not part of your grade (or not a big part) and you are the type who can self-teach the material more efficiently than the professor can. So spending an hour and fifteen minutes with the textbook goes further towards preparing you for that big test that is 25% of your grade than spending an hour and fifteen minutes listening to the professor spinning his wheels answering questions from doofuses who haven’t studied or recounting anecdotes tangentially related to the subject at hand.

    3. Melissa

      Yeah, I skipped class all the time in college, so I wouldn’t know how to answer that in an interview. But on the other end, I’m not sure that I would care whether a recent grad skipped class in college. I think most students know the difference between skipping class and skipping out on work. I skipped class whenever I could in college (lol) but in my internships, I never ever missed a day!

  6. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

    Find an opportunity them some feedback and note their response. Just had a great experience with a potential intern this week who wasn’t terribly professional at one moment during the interview process. Shared the feedback with her, and her response was GREAT. I can work with inexperienced, as long as they are willing and able to take feedback on board. It’s worse to have someone a little bit below the skill level who is curious, smart and motivated than it is to have someone who is right at the minimum and doesn’t want to gain anything.

  7. AdAgencyChick

    I would add to this: if there’s some kind of test or sample assignment you can give them, do it. I hired one person who, although he was not fresh out of college, had little experience in my field, based on his poise and seeming smarts in the interview. I later found that poise and polish didn’t mean he could actually write well. I now make all applicants with less than a year of experience take a copywriting test before I’ll consider hiring them. The test is simpler than a real assignment would be — but it does show who has an instinctive knack for the work and who doesn’t.

      1. WorkingMom

        Along these lines – how would you (or anyone) suggest testing an applicant’s written communication skills when the majority of their work will be emailing with clients. I’ve had experiences where new-hires cannot form a coherent thought in an email, bad grammar, misspellings, and missing punctuation. It was awful. What type of a “test” would you give to see if a person can form a coherent thought in an email?

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          “Imagine you’ve received the following email from a client and draft a response that’s friendly and helpful.” You can throw in twists like “let them know that we can’t do what they’re asking, while still being warm and friendly” to make it more challenging. And you could give, like, three separate scenarios for them to write answers to.

          You’ll be able to cull out a HUGE amount of your candidates by doing just this.

          1. MR

            My first job out of college was with a Fortune 50 company. I could not believe how many people in management above me (even high level managers) could not put together coherent emails. I don’t even know how many times I was embarrassed by the poor grammar and spelling in these emails.

            I don’t claim to be a wordsmith by any stretch of the imagination, but it was difficult for me to respect these people when they put out this type of work on a regular basis.

            1. One of the Annes

              This. It really saddens me the number of people with college degrees who cannot write. It points to a real failure of our education system.

            2. AdAgencyChick

              OMFG. It still astonishes me how badly written so many emails are in my field. WE ARE IN THE BUSINESS OF COMMUNICATION.

              The only people who seem to be able to write grammatically correct, correctly-spelled emails are the editors and some (amazingly, not all) copywriters. This annoys the living daylights out of me.

          2. A Kate

            I had to do this for my first job out of college. After the first-round phone interview, the hiring manager emailed me a list of four scenarios (client complaints, reaching out to potential partner organizations, etc.), and asked me to draft emails in response to them and send it back to her within 24 hours.

            Ultimately I was promoted and was involved in hiring my replacement in the original position. You’re not kidding about weeding people out! Of our top 10 candidates, more than 5 were disqualified on the content of the emails or writing style alone. This was truly valuable information, as the job involved a lot of email contact with clients.

          3. Melissa

            YES YES YES do this. I teach undergraduates and SO many of them cannot put together a coherent email without any spelling or grammatical errors. Still others can spell and put together sentences, but their emails unintentionally come off as rude or terse because they don’t realize they can’t write an email the same way they would talk to me in person.

        2. Chriama

          Make them write a sample email. I remember having to give a presentation about someone looking for home internet solutions. Not super technical (and not that related to the business), but a way to see how well I research, what I prioritized out of the information I was given, and how I present.

        3. Cassie

          For a position with the PR dept at a community college, they asked me to draft a letter to a high school principal to accompany a flyer for an event for high school students. It was a while ago so I can’t remember specifics but I think I was plopped down in front of a computer with Word open and given 15 minutes to complete the task. I remember tossing in phrases like “Hope to see you at [the event]!” and stuff like that – stuff that I wouldn’t normally use in my personal life but that I felt was appropriate for a PR/outreach kind of position.

    1. Vera

      Yep – I recently developed one for our intern applicants that has them do some semi-advanced Excel work. We specifically note on the application that proficiency in Excel is a strong preference. While my co-workers balked at my exercise (since it was a preference, not an requirement), I wanted to see how the ones with experience went about the work, and if the ones without experience would try to learn via google/youtube/whatever how to do the task as opposed to just giving up. It has proven to be a very useful tool in making hiring decisions.

      1. Emily, admin extraordinaire

        In many ways, I’d value the people who tried to figure it out even above the people who already knew how to do it– it shows that they’re not afraid to try come up with their own solution when facing a challenge. Knowing how to do something is great– knowing how to find out how to do something is even better.

      2. AdAgencyChick

        This is so true that assigning candidates a task tells you more than just how good they are at the task.

        I once hired a writer who was coming out of another department. He did well on the test, but was slightly late submitting it. In retrospect, this was a sign of things to come: good writer, but I had to work with him because he had a tendency to overthink his work, which caused him to miss deadlines.

    2. LAI

      Yep, agreed. I’ve hired a lot of student workers and part of their job is giving presentations to fellow students. We ask them to give a 1-minute presentation on a topic of their choice.

      My other advice would be to let them know that you’re ok accepting answers that come from non-work experiences. Often, they think they can only talk about things that happened at work and if they haven’t had a job before, they might struggle and even tell you that they can’t think of an answer. We ask a lot of open-ended, situational questions like “tell me about a time when you had to communicate difficult information to someone” or “we’re looking for XYZ skill – can you give me an example of a time when you embodied these characteristics?”. We tell them it’s perfectly fine to give an answer based on a classroom interaction or family situation.

  8. HR Madness

    This advice is pretty spot on. I think it’s really important to look at what the position/culture really needs and direct your questions towards that. I used to recruit pretty exclusively in colleges and the job itself, well, most people came with the hard skills to do it. In otherwords, it didn’t require certain classes, certificates, being proficient at excel etc. We didn’t even need the person to have a college degree; we needed energy, a little aggression, thick skin (it was a transportation brokerage, so all day you would be speaking with truck drivers). Tell me about a time when you dealt with a difficult customer, what was the outcome? Tell me how you stay calm when the pressure is on. How do you currently manage multiple priorities? Most of the time, they hadn’t experienced anything quite like our environment, but their answers gave me clues into what they considered to be a pressure situation or what “multiple priorites” meant to them?

    We also always sat them down with someone who did the job they were applying for. That gave them insite to ask more questions and have further conversations (or for them to self-select out). I do highly recommend a mini-job shadow if you can make it work in your environment.

  9. Seattlejo

    If you’re looking for interns and doing your interviewing now, remember that students may have little actual degree experience and may just be starting those classes. The first couple of years of classes are often just general ed classes, with the upper level classes coming later. We run into this problem often, interviewing folks who have only been in their major for 6 weeks for next summers internship.

    We look for a GPA, relevant experience, and the ability to communicate their experience. We expect to hear about school projects, dorm interactions and volunteer work. We focus less on how well they’ve researched us. We’d rather they be able to communicate their skills and abilities well.

  10. OP

    Thank you to Allison and to all the commenters for the very thoughtful responses and great advice. It has quickly made me realize that we are doing a disservice to the candidates and ourselves by just asking all candidates the same 12 questions. We need to be doing more prep for each candidate, formulating specific questions based on individual resumes.

    1. Lauren

      I went through a round of hiring for student internships (as a candidate) a few years ago and what I noticed was that I and the other students preferred the employers who asked us focused questions based on our resumes, or followed up on our answers, which excluded the government employers who could only stick to a script. I felt like I got a better sense of the employers if they had a conversation with me, and just as interviewers prefer it if a candidate shows they’ve read the website, I liked them better if it seemed like they’d read my resume. So I think you’re right that it can also do you a disservice.

    2. JMegan

      we are doing a disservice to the candidates and ourselves by just asking all candidates the same 12 questions. We need to be doing more prep for each candidate, formulating specific questions based on individual resumes.

      This, a thousand times. I work in government, which prides itself on its “fair” hiring practices of asking each candidate the exact same questions, and giving points for each correct answer. It’s a perfect example of how equality is not the same as fairness. While every interview is theoretically equal, it doesn’t allow interviewers to probe for more details about a specific question, and it doesn’t allow the candidate to shine in ways that perhaps the interviewers hadn’t thought of.

      It also discounts things like engagement and attitude (did they show up on time, were they dressed apprpriately, were they polite, etc), and a person’s actual level of passion or interest. Who would you rather hire? The person who got 9/10 on the technical questions but sounded bored to tears by all of them, or the person who got 8/10 but seemed genuinely interested in the topic? In government, the 9/10 gets hired, regardless of what other factors come into play. (Not that I’m bitter, ahem.)

      Start with the same basic questions, yes. But don’t get so constrained by that structure that you forget you’re hiring a person, with strengths and weaknesses and personality quirks that go beyond what is written on an interview sheet.

  11. nuqotw

    See if they can own a shortcoming. Many years ago when I was interviewing entry level candidates (for full time jobs) the candidate would tell me about his/her senior project. At the time, the stock market was going up up up, a common senior project was building a forecasting model, and 100% of these models were a linear fit of recent stock market data. I asked each candidate if his/her model could forecast inevitable future downturns; the ones who said no were nearly always better than the ones who said that it wasn’t necessary to forecast such a thing.

  12. Rachel - HR

    I hire a lot of individuals just out of college. If they don’t have internships it can be more difficult.

    Most college students are going to have some work experience with transferable skills. So, they may have worked in retail but you can ask about a time they disagreed with a coworker or a manager and how they handled it.

    It’s also okay to ask hypothetical questions of “how do you think you might you handle xyz situation.” They’re not going to know the exact answer but it gives you a chance to access their thought process.

    1. College Career Counselor

      And this is why internships are SO important to being in the conversation for jobs after college. The internship shows that you have some (or any) experience in the field, demonstrates that you were motivated enough to seek out the experience, gives you some “real world” scenarios to draw on when answering questions, shows an interest in the field, etc. Even if the internship is in a field completely different from what you’re interviewing for, you can still make the case for what you learned from the experience and how it applies to the new field.

      1. books

        But so many kids can’t afford to take an unpaid internship. I worked at a day camp in college. I made $500/week (~10 years ago). That went toward school and expenses for the year.

        1. EE

          Absolutely. I spent my summers working and that’s how I paid my bills.

          There’s almost no such thing as the university student who can be 100% self-supporting and also take time off from earning to do an unpaid internship, so it’s always family who pick up the costs.

          I would feel extremely icky about working for a company who wrote off people from poor families like that.

          1. Penny

            True, but it often does and it depends on your field. A highly in demand field like Engineering or IT is more likely to pay than Sociology or Radio TV Film. And if you have to live away from home for the internship, housing and all that comes with that is an extra expense.

  13. Liz

    As someone who is somewhat young (5 years out of college) I found discussing my restaurant experience throughout college to be hugely helpful when interviewing for entry level jobs. Interviewers recognized that to be a successful server/bartender it requires juggling a lot of things at once, as well as commitment by holding down the job for 1-2 years while in school. It was listed as other experience on my resume in a different section than relevant internships but almost every interviewer wanted to discuss it. Frankly, other than learning basic office skills such as Outlook, transferring phone calls, making copies, etc. my internships provided me with very little knowledge while my jobs in restaurants provided me much more in terms of developing soft skills such as dealing with conflicts, learning to think on my feet, and giving me the ability to talk to almost anyone with any personality. I am convinced my first job in sales (in 2009 when jobs with a base salary+commission and benefits were not easy to come by) was due to soft skills and discussing different situations from my serving experience and how I handled them.

    I think many interviewers in non-technical fields do not put much relevance on internships unless they were for particularly impressive companies, and in that case, you would usually have a lot of educational accolades already. Or unless you had very specific job duties that went beyond receptionist type tasks. Probably because many interns have very little responsibility and typically are doing more mundane office tasks. Jobs in retail and restaurants prove you are actually able to hold down a job, show up on time, and understand basic job responsibilities.

    It’s also important to ask about, or test, basic computer skills because colleges are often terrible at requiring skills beyond Word. People are often shocked that students have little skills beyond Word. I received a Microsoft Excel certification through a course in college that interviewers always seemed to notice as well.

    1. jag

      I heard the chief executive of one of the most innovative small libraries in the US told us that if someone a little library experience as a volunteer or intern and plus deep experience in hospitality was a very strong combination for hiring.

      On the flip side, as an applicant, the way to make internships helpful in hiring is to explain what to accomplished. On your resume or in an interview, talk about the challenges, the process you used to meet them, and the benefit to the organization or your own skills.

  14. CL

    Ask about a time they offended someone and what they did about it. If your new hire is going to be working with others, they need to be able to read when they have stepped on other people’s toes (often it’s unintentional) and to have some strategy for fixing things.

    Also, once hired, be prepared to spend extra time in the onboarding process explaining things like what HR does, what to do if they have a concern, and behaviors that are not acceptable (dress, gossiping, swearing, being late, or whatever).

  15. annie

    I like to ask what draws them to our company in particular. Now realistically, I know they are probably applying at many other companies as well, but I like the question because you can get a chance to see if they know what makes your company unique in your city/field/etc, which is usually a good indicator of solid research skills and thoughtfulness when going about tasks.

  16. Artemesia

    I would be asking students about field based classroom projects. Have they done service-learning projects and what were the goals, the challenges, the accomplishments, the lessons learned? Have they done other community based school projects — same questions. What about long term projects as part of their schooling e.g. research projects, group projects, significant long term writing projects, writing for school paper or magazine? Part time jobs, volunteer efforts?

    Just as with someone who has job experience, I’d want the focus on achievement and exploration of challenges and how those were met. There are college major programs that involve students in well managed team projects, field based projects and internships as part of their course of study. These are the kind of students I’d be hiring. And for most things, I would want to see some writing samples — either from their school work or a small written assignment completed for you e.g. give them some information and ask them to write a press release or a short briefing memo. A very small writing sample will let you know if you have someone who communicates smoothly and competently or someone whose writing suggests a poor grasp of the use of language.

  17. JMegan

    I also like “what did you do to prepare for this interview?” You can assume that they have looked at your website (we hope!), but what other resources did they use? Did they find the Professional Association of Chocolate Teapot Makers? Did they look for information on LinkedIn, Glassdoor, etc? Did they read any independent news articles about the work you do? Did they ask someone for help on interview prep in general?

    There are no right or wrong answers here, and of course their answers will depend on what information is actually available. But it will give you an idea of their research skills, and how much time they put into the prep – did they just read your About Us page, or did they go any deeper? Is there some obvious source that any superficial amount of research should have found, but which they missed? It will also give them an opportunity to show how much they already know about the industry or profession in their terms, without just responding to structured questions asked by the interviewer.

  18. jag

    I don’t hire out of college for jobs, only internships, but to me in the nonprofit arena the most important things are precision – not being sloppy or loose in writing or even (conceptually) in talking.

    Also, if someone had a job at a service-oriented place where there is some interaction with customers or where attention to detail is important, that’s a big plus, especially if they worked there for some time. Or even an internship or extracurricular activity. Somewhere where things have to be done right and/or careful thinking is needed.

    A really superb cover letter – interesting and well-written – can also help a lot.

    I’ll add that some many students don’t write well. Even the good ones are often too wordy for the world of work (though I’ll give that a pass since I can coach is out of them).

    Oh, and and by not writing well, I don’t just mean grammar and spelling, but thinking.

    As a converse, one of our strongest recent interns was not a native English speaker, which was a drawback for part of the work. But the logic, meaning, and organizations of her writing was great, so we were able to adjust her responsibilities to take advantage of that and deal with the small grammar problems by having other people do quick proofreads (small grammar problems are far easier to fix than writing that is disorganized or just plain wrong).

    We even hired her for a while as a temp when we were short staffed.

  19. ZSD

    Also, if they say that have experience with something (a type of tool, a program, etc.), ask them to explain how they’ve used that tool, what versions of it they’ve used, etc. At the interview for the first job I had out of grad school, I was asked, “Do you have any experience using databases?” I answered honestly, saying that yes, I used databases all the time in grad school.
    I was thinking of using databases in terms of searching for journal articles using the academic databases that libraries subscribe to. When I started the job, they wanted me to maintain an Access database, which is *completely different.* I had to be taught pretty much from scratch, and I wonder if they thought I had lied in the interview. Of course, I wasn’t lying – I just was talking about the only kinds of databases I knew! If they had asked me specifically how I had *used* databases for my research, they might have learned in the interview that I was talking about something completely different than what they were looking for. (That would have been bad for me, I suppose, but good for the company.)

    1. the_scientist

      Yes, this, a million times. I use SAS and SPSS so that’s what I’m used to but it’s not sufficient to ask “what’s your proficiency with X tool?” I mean, it’s valuable to see what the candidate thinks of their own skills, but it needs to be followed up with “okay, tell me how you used it” and then you can judge if they are really as advanced as they say.

      1. Melissa

        Yeah, I’m sure if I asked a couple of students they would say they were “proficient” in SPSS after a single statistics in psychology course. Having taught that class I would know that no, they were not proficient, lol. I would want to know what specific kinds of analyses they could do in SPSS – and, more importantly, whether they remembered how to interpret them correctly. Lots of kids can plug and chug; fewer remember the implications of their analyses, which I try to teach them is the MOST important part of statistical analysis.

  20. Rachel B

    I work in web marketing. I always probe how much research a candidate has done about the candidate, as researching on the web is a big part of any entry-level job. I also found asking about a candidate’s best and worst classes to be helpful. I found it hear how a candidate can handle criticism or bad marks from a professor, because he or she will likely struggle with not being an “expert” for a while at work.

  21. Mitchell

    I hired a lot of students every semester. Granted, I wasn’t looking for any technical skills– just someone dependable and willing to learn. I also was very clear about our work schedule and time commitment required. If you expect them to work even when school isn’t in session, such as winter break, say so.

    For many of them, it was their first paid job. I always looked for references. Everyone should have *somebody* besides a relative who can vouch for you. Even if you walked dogs at the animal shelter once a week for an hour– that was good enough for me. I was basically looking to see that the person showed up when they said they would, communicated if they needed time off/were sick, and followed directions. Even a sports coach would work.

    Also, since I was hiring a lot of young students, I made sure to tell them up front that it didn’t matter whether their experience came from a paid job, volunteering, a club or a class. I was surprised how many students didn’t tell me about their very impressive volunteer experience until I asked because they didn’t think it “counted”.

  22. hnl123

    I like questions like –
    “Tell me about a time you took initiative and went above and beyond your regular duties” or
    “Tell me about a difficult time you had working in groups and what you were able to resolve it”, or
    “what gets you excited to get up and go to work in the morning?” or things like that.
    I worked in retail, and asked these questions and it was immediate who were the shining stars and who were not.

  23. Cassie

    STEM-field-related: for our doctoral programs, students have to pass a preliminary exam that’s designed to weed out students who aren’t really cut out for doctoral studies. So even if you get into the program, you might get cut after your 1st year. Our prelim exams are now part-written/part-oral (rather than just all-written) – they’re given time to work out the answers (written), and then they have to explain how they got to the answers to the professor. Part of this change was because some students were great at the technical stuff but were poor at communicating (we have a lot of foreign students where written English is much better than verbal English).

    I’ve taken a look at some of those exam questions – most of them are way beyond my comprehension, but I’ve seen some questions that was more along the lines of a logic test or brain-teaser. The professors want to see how these students’ minds work, how they come up with solutions, what their thought process is. Rather than just rote memorizing technical data.

    I think the level of technical questioning would depend on the person conducting the interview – if you have (say) an engineer doing the interview, he/she can ask more technical questions and see how the candidates respond. If you have an HR person conducting the interview, they probably will not be able to assess the technical knowledge of the student, so they might be better suited to assess soft skills. Although I think the level of soft skills needed for a technical position is slightly lower than say for marketing or PR…

  24. Anx

    For someone currently back in school to brush up on my lab skills, this is a really informative thread.

    For those of you in hiring positions, how would you look at someone with little professional experience after college who isn’t necessarily a new grad (someone who graduated over 5 years ago and is trying to begin a professional career track?). Would referencing situations from jobs that are over 5 years old seem stale? Or is it preferable than using less relevant or interested examples that are recent?

    1. Anx

      To clarify, those older jobs were jobs I did in college which I feel I learned a lot more from than my jobs since.

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